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 By Ian Darke

Germany, Argentina, Spain and Brazil learn World Cup won't be easy

ST. PETERSBURG -- All those World Cup previews are proving -- not for the first time -- that predictions can make fools of us all. Who would have thought, for example, that Brazil, Germany, Spain and Argentina would play their first games and not muster a win between them?

First impressions can be misleading, of course. In 2010, Spain lost their opener against Switzerland but went on to lift the trophy; four years later, Italy started with a win against England but failed to get out of the group stage. The moral is not to jump to conclusions; it is a long tournament and there is time enough yet for the big guns to fire.

Nonetheless, Germany's shock defeat to Mexico hinted that complacency, which they vowed to avoid, is possibly there. Packed with players of high technique, the holders' display showed no flair or dynamism against a Mexican team that cleverly exploited the space left by Joshua Kimmich's dashes forward from right-back.

It was impossible to avoid the thought that a speedy flier like Leroy Sane would have been a good option for Germany, if only had not been on holiday with his girlfriend having been left out by Joachim Low. A Euro for his thoughts...

Argentina's case for the defence continues to undermine any confidence in their chances. A collective neurosis set in every time Iceland attacked on Saturday, which admittedly was not often. Sure enough, though, the Ice Men scored and got their point. The feeling persists that a top team might rip Argentina's defence to ribbons, even if Lionel Messi -- or "Messyer" as the Russian TV commentators call him -- does his thing at the other end.

Spain, despite the pre-tournament turmoil that saw Julen Lopetegui fired as manager two days before their first game, were mighty impressive despite being foiled by Cristiano Ronaldo's hat trick for Portugal. Some of the Spaniards' passing moves seemed to last longer than a symphony and Diego Costa looks sharp enough to finish off those movements. He even smiled once in Friday's game!

Germany's Thomas Muller grimaces after the World Cup loss to Mexico.
Germany were stunned by Mexico in their World Cup opener.

Brazil, meanwhile, were surprisingly held by Switzerland, whose goal really should have been disallowed by a VAR review? The push on Miranda by goal scorer Stephen Zuber was blatant and decisive. If that is not a "clear error," what is?

Brazil are still capable of breathtaking cameos, though there are suspicions the defence is a little less than watertight, while Neymar clearly needs time to find full sharpness after not playing a competitive game for almost four months. It will be no surprise if that fitness returns as the month goes on.

Early indications are that the so-called lesser teams in Russia are not going away easily. They have read those previews and have ripped them up, with only Saudi Arabia looking out of their depth. Against every other team, the fancied countries have had to be at full throttle or face the consequences. Look how hard an unconvincing France found things against Australia; suddenly there are big fans of VAR all over Paris!

A surprise star of this World Cup might be Serbia's silky "SMS," Sergei Milinkovic-Savic of Lazio. In the final half-hour of the win over a disappointing Costa Rica, his deft flicks and eye for a pass illuminated proceedings.

While comparisons to Zinedine Zidane are premature and unfair, the style is reminiscent. Milinkovic-Savic is -- apparently -- a big Real Madrid fan, so it would be no surprise to see them move in for the 23-year-old, despite strong competing interest from Juventus.

As for the host nation, all is going smoothly, even on the pitch. However, it would be a lie to suggest the nation is in the grip of World Cup fever. Not yet anyway.

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.


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